Smiling white girl with Down Syndrome with borwn hair and a pink stripy top. She is being carried on the back of her older sister a white non disabled teen with brown hair and wearing a yellow top

When museums are asked why they aren’t yet regularly welcoming SEND children and families, often the answers given are: “We don’t have much call for it; they don’t visit” or “there aren’t enough of them to make it worthwhile to invest in”. Time to debunk some of those myths, whilst also adding: Have you considered they may not be visiting because you don’t have anything for them yet? Would you waste your precious family time visiting somewhere that wasn’t welcoming to you?

Around 1.1 million or 8% *now 11% in England, 2023* of children in the U.K. are disabled, and over 10% of U.K. homes have a disabled child in the family. That alone is a substantial audience, but when you take into account their non-disabled siblings and friends who will be visiting with them, there could be up to 20% of children who are affected by access needs.

20%! That’s a fifth of all U.K. children who may not be able to visit your museum if you are ill-equipped to welcome the disabled child within that group. The alternative is to ask families to visit at different times without their disabled child in tow (something we’d all consider ableist and immoral) or relegate museum visits to just school outings, which powerful research suggests does not have the same long-term well-being or cultural connectivity benefits as visiting with a family.

“It’s not necessarily the cultural organization itself that makes a child into a lifelong lover of culture; it’s also the memories families make together at that cultural organization”. Data from the ongoing National Awareness, Attitudes and Usage Study by Impacts Experience shows overwhelmingly that spending time with friends and family is the main driver for a museum or cultural venue visit.

Data Reveals the Best Thing About Visiting a Cultural Organization

Museum visits are also of huge benefit to multigenerational learning and engagement, and all children benefit from this. Exploring and discovering new spaces and the experiences within them with extended family is about more than just learning, its about having fun too!

See the Kids in Museums SEND Family Survey carried out in 2020 that shows this is the case.

In fact, there is no difference in the reasons why a SEND family or social group would visit your museum to a non-SEND one. You may not see them as frequently at the moment because, historically, museums have not been perceived as spaces that are welcoming to them. Together, we need to change this—it is a lost opportunity both ways.

In 2019, The Ecclesiastical conducted a survey of families that were visiting museums and heritage sites. 42% of parents with special needs children, said that staff or visitors were unfriendly or made them feel uncomfortable. The findings were reported in The Guardian and triggered a shocked response, but then as the Kids in Museums survey showed a year later, 40% of families still want SEND aware staff and visitor welcome.

Some of the poor feedback and experiences from SEND families may be down to ignorance of their needs and/or of disability inclusion itself. The Disabled Children’s Partnership in 2020 found that 43% of people say they don’t know anyone with a disability, despite 1 in 5 people being disabled, and 97% of parents with a disabled child say the public do not understand the challenges they face every day. (Disabled Children’s Partnership, 2020)

Similarly, in 2018, Scope reported that 87% of parents have felt judged by members of the public, and 41% of them were offered no emotional support. Scope: Now Is the Time report, 2018

Herein lies one of the issues that museums need to overcome. In addition to meeting equality act legislation and providing inclusive spaces, museums need to recognise that their offer is relevant to disabled visitors and, importantly, value that disabled visitors’ experiences and engagement are equal to all others.

This website has been set up to support SEND inclusion in museums. SEND, technically, covers ages 0–25; however, making your museum SEND welcoming will also have a positive impact globally on disability inclusion and access. The impact could even extend to your museum’s equality representation in staff and volunteers if improvements you make to facilities mean disabled people can now work with and for you.

Acknowledging that 1 in 5 people in the U.K. are disabled makes it clear that being accessible is not just a nice thing for your museum to be, it also makes business sense.

Your museum will become part of the £249 billion U.K. annual disability economy called          The Purple Pound and will not only attract customers but employees too.

The big message

Being SEND-friendly isn’t just a “feel good” activity; it makes financial and good business-planning sense. Families don’t want your charity; they want to be able to access your services equally as a paying customer and feel as valued and welcomed as any other visiting family. The statistics speak for themselves: SEND children and families are a big audience and one you should be tapping into.